Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Labels, Reality and False Advertising

I grew up in a culture of skepticism. My parents taught me very young the concept of advertising. I was taught early that people will lie to my face to make a buck. But it’s not just economic purchases where this is the case, a lesson I learned more or less on my own.

A comment was made stating that labels provide the service of allowing human beings to differentiate themselves, and ultimately divide into groups we find comfortable. In fact, the commenter goes so far as to use the term “world,” implying that people of different attitudes are segregated to the point of living in completely different realities.

I’ve never liked the term “worldview.” People don’t have different worldviews, unless you’re out in space looking back at Earth. In this case, you certainly see things differently than I do. But really, we’re all living in the same world, even if we’ve sequestered ourselves to a tiny, comfortable corner of it.

Trust me, I would know. I wouldn’t use the term “sheltered” when it comes to my lifestyle. It just doesn’t seem to be the right word, because it implies someone is trying to protect me from something. No one, not even myself, is consciously trying to shield me from anything. However, my world is still relatively small, largely confined to my home and places I go to purchase things.

I make no illusions about the way I live. I don’t imagine my experience to be particularly cosmopolitan simply because I spend a great deal of time on the computer, which is vicariously connected to the whole world. I don’t have the world at my fingertips anymore than I have it on a string.

Yet, even though I don’t see them, I know there are children going to bed hungry tonight, not just in far flung and impoverished third-world nations, but here in America, maybe even within a mile or two of my home. I don’t experience the negative effects firsthand, but I know racism exists, I know sexism exists, and I know classism exists.

I understand a great deal about the world outside of my own personal, daily experience, not because I’m so gosh darned naturally bright, but because I take the time to talk to people, to read, to basically observe as much of the world as can be revealed to me. I go to moderate (certainly not great) lengths to expose myself to more people, places, things, and ideas than I would experience in the normal course of my life.

I haven’t had a lot of black friends in my life, a consequence of having been born in the Midwest to relatively wealthy parents. My family was certainly rich, not so rich that I slept in the wing of a college dorm named after a relative, but rich enough that I hung out with people who did. One of my roommates my freshman year of college was black, and I dated a black girl in college for about a month (my credit score has yet to recover…), but otherwise I had very little regular contact with black people.

But even before I moved to Philadelphia for college, I didn’t hate black people, I was just downright ignorant of them. Without exaggeration, here was my experience with black people before the age of 18:

My mom always tells the story of when I was just learning to talk, I saw a black guy while we were out. I pointed to him and said, “Reading Rainbow!” If I had to guess, I would say the first impression I got of black people was Lamar Burton. I also remember “Gordan” on Sesame Street was black.

For one year in first grade after my family moved to Michigan, I went to a public school with a couple black kids in my class. My memory is very fuzzy. When my family moved to Indiana, there was a black guy in my middle school from grades 6 through 8. He was on all the sports teams and was way too cool for me to have gotten to know.

High school was slightly more diverse, since it was a private high school that gave sports scholarships to some minority students. Still, there was only about 5-6 black people out of about 120 students per grade level. During my senior year, I “volunteered” (though I was really forced through a requirement at my high school) to do community service in downtown Indianapolis where I was in contact with poor grade school students, most of whom were black.

So what is the point of this exhaustive history of racial contact? Namely this: I didn’t choose to be surrounded by white people, the world largely seemed to choose for me. I don’t look down on people who have no black friends or have very little access to black people, but I do hate bigots. We don’t choose a great deal about our situation in life, but we do have control over what we think.

I don’t like it when people surround themselves with like-minded individuals. I call it intellectual incest. It’s a great way of breeding some horribly mutated ideas. I tend to gravitate towards strong personalities who have a little bit in common with me on the surface, but who I can sit and argue with for hours. I see these people as coarse whetstones against which I can sharpen myself.

It would be easy for me to be a bigot. Think about the only black people I have had contact with: some over-paid actors that were probably selected for on the basis of their race by a government propaganda agency (you know, PBS); black kids getting advantages for being black; poor, loud, annoying black kids in an at-risk after-school program; a girl who broke my heart… all the makings are there for me to misinterpret.

And yet, I still enjoy talking to black people as much (and sometimes as little) as anyone else. I still recall fondly talking to a black guy in a restaurant over lunch because of a mix up.

The cashier at this place took the order while you were in line and wrote your last name down to call you when your order was up. My last name is pretty damn common, so it’s not surprising that someone tried to step up and take my meal. It’s even less surprising that they were black, since another unmentioned exposure to black people for me was sports. Lots of black athletes have the last name “Allen.”

Of course, Allen isn’t exactly a traditional African name. I actually said, I swear on my life, “I guess one of your ancestors was owned by one of mine, sorry about that.” I am so lucky that he laughed. He ended up sitting down across from me while I was eating and we talked for like 20 minutes after we were both finished with our meals before he had to return to work. I don’t recall much about what we spoke of; I think it was mostly politics. I pretty much only talk religion and politics when chatting with strangers. Weather talk gets a nod and silence from me.

I just don’t see the appeal in only associating with “your own kind.” Yeah, it happens by circumstance, but I mean… when given the opportunity to expose yourself to novelty, the decision to abstain is cowardice bordering on self-loathing. Why would anyone deprive themselves of the possibility of a new friend, a new favorite food, a new band’s music… whatever it is one is confronted with, why would someone shy away from at least trying something new?

We’re not talking “Just give heroin one try.” If you get hooked on a new favorite food, it’s a calculated risk you should be willing to take. If you meet someone who you share a connection with whose ideas are actually nothing like your own… where is the harm in that?

Getting back to the original comment… it was made regarding the label “conservative,” and I presume also regarding “liberal.” It’s one thing to not emphasize labels that someone has no control over (like race or gender). It’s downright insane to place importance on the labels that others apply to themselves.

I did online dating for a brief period. It’s how I met my wife, actually. One thing I learned from it was that people don’t know jack shit about who they are. I don’t mean that people need to pack up and go to India to find themselves, study themselves, and get doctorates on self. Maybe it’s good that people are horrible at analyzing their own personalities, since that indicates a certain lack of self-centeredness… or maybe it’s just self-delusion and narcissism. Who am I to say?

But basically, I learned to ignore what people wrote in their actual profile, and instead based my opinion of them initially on how we matched up based on survey questions, but most importantly I took online chats with people very seriously. I pretty quickly saw instant message conversations with potential dates as online interviews for the job of dating me, because I made the mistake early to just dive into a few dates with women based on what they wrote about themselves.

I met with a girl who said she was liberal, though the questionnaire results said she was far right of me. After our date, I would classify her perhaps as a “blue dog Democrat,” and I can’t tell the difference between them and Republicans (which is a huge insult). I also went on a date with a girl who said she was a vegetarian but didn’t mind dating someone who ate meat. Then it turned out to that in order to date her, I would have to give up meat.

In this case, intent isn’t too important to me, but it might be useful if anyone were interested in classifying this sort of thing. Whether people are lying or simply mistaken about their own views and personality, an individual’s opinion of themselves means absolutely nothing to me beyond how I will interpret their self-perception in the grander scheme of who they are.

Even if one knows oneself, labels are often a lazy shorthand that do not accurately and adequately describe the nuance of an individual. People who describe themselves using a broad term like “right-wing” and then qualify it with a laundry list of exceptions continue to puzzle me to this day.

Labels mean nothing in a world where we all use language differently, unless they are labels based on your own observations or labels which are clearly defined. I’m all for labels in general, but I affix the labels; I don’t go by what others say. This seems like common sense to me in a world where a casual trip down any supermarket aisle will yield hundreds of labels with vague language, half-truths, and flat out lies.

“New and Improved!” That’s my favorite, because the implication is that they could have altered it to be worse, but they wouldn’t do that to you, the customer. Instead, they made it better, even though “improved” is a completely relative term. At least it doesn’t carry the same audacity as “#1” or “Voted Best.” I don’t remember choosing which mustard was better the last time I was at the polls, but then again, I was really drunk…

[Yeah, I don’t drink… but never let the truth get in the way of a joke.]

The bottom line is this: everyone in the world is out there advertising themselves. Many people have no interest in being accurate, nor is there any oversight. People hide things about themselves, they present themselves as having qualities they imagine they possess, there are even those who manipulate others by knowingly appearing modest and unassuming… at first.

Honestly, I’m surprised to have gotten the comment in the first place. I hate to see someone being an outspoken advocate for ideological segregation, for one thing. But I also feel sorry for someone who values such a thing and also labels themselves as atheist and conservative.

What a miserable existence that must be. I mean, liberals are pretty religious, but conservatives take it to another level. Before I learned to steer the debate to the real issue, I let many conservatives lead me down the intellectual cul-de-sac of the old “the United States is a Christian Nation” debate.

While I enjoy talking with conservatives, and I never shy away from an opportunity to talk to someone different, I enjoy a comfortable distance from conservatism. I can’t imagine the agony of labeling myself a conservative, and further believing I should surround myself with conservatives. That would be my personal hell, especially if Lady Gaga was playing in the background… though what are the odds of conservatives listening to Lady Gaga?

If you’re a conservative who differs on even one issue, you may as well vote Democrat, since odds are the Democrat is only going to change one thing anyway, and it will only be changed as little as humanly possible. If that isn’t what every conservative claims to be all about, then I must have not been paying attention.

I just don’t get it, really. Labels are bullshit, even the ones I make for personal use. They’re really only relevant to me, and I’ve been wrong many times. I often find someone very tolerable at first, only to find out I’m wrong later. That’s why I never really understood bigotry and prejudice: I’ve found that in order to really hate someone, you have to get to know them first.

I guess labeling people and judging them based on superficial criteria is just the inevitability of age. After all, the old are not long for this world, so they don’t have time for things like “listening,” and “consideration,” or little technicalities like “justice” or “progress.” They just want to live out their remaining time in what they already understand, doing what they already know, chanting to themselves that they are safe and comfortable in the cocoon of privilege.

My only comfort? Their mortality. It was nice to know you, now get out of our way.

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